Meet the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Dr. Aziz Sancar spent his life researching how damaged cells and DNA heal. Now, he’s the newest Nobel laureate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Doctor Aziz Sancar spent his life researching how damaged cells and DNA heal, now he's the newest Nobel Laureate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This is his story.


This isn't just a story about Dr. Aziz Sancar winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

We'll get to that.

No, this is a story about dreams.

[ Applause ] Growing up in rural Turkey in the 1950s, Sancar imagined himself playing on the Turkish National Soccer team.

I was a good goalkeeper.

Yeah, and so -- I think I needed probably four inches more in height and a little more buff to be, you know.

If you look at Howard, Tim Howard, right?

That kind of physique is for... So I decide not to.

But dreams come in different ways.

Dr. Sancar eventually got an autographed jersey from the Turkish National Team, but that was because of another dream.

It turns out finishing at the top of his class in medical school and even practicing medicine wasn't enough.

He wanted to understand how medicines work at the cellular level.

This is a very important biological fact.

It is an important part of being alive.

Thus began a career of long hours, constant repetition of experiments, scrambles for funding, and long odds that research will yield the expected results.

Dr. Sancar joined the UNC School of Medicine in 1982.

He leads a team of 10 researchers working to understand DNA repair.

Every question is really important at the basic level to understand how everything works, right?

And so we're trying to understand this basic process.

And eventually that does lead to breakthroughs that cure diseases or prevent.

As these results came out in the form of films or whatever, he would often be looking over our shoulders and interpreting our data, knowing what we had done and what the results were before we had even figured it out.

He was on top of everything.

The team uncovered one of the few major repair mechanisms our bodies use to keep cancer at bay as we are bombarded by environmental factors such as sunlight and pollution.

Those factors constantly damage the DNA in our cells.

In the process called nucleotide excision repair, molecular mechanisms identify, remove, replicate, and repair damaged DNA strands.

It's such a fascinating molecule, and he appreciated the mysteries of it early on and wanted to really delve in.

And as a result, he's made fundamental discoveries in how DNA repairs itself, which is so important for life and it's also important for cancer therapy.

Without that repair system, DNA would mutate and lead to cancer.

The enzyme has two cofactors or small molecules that are associated with the protein.

One is an antenna of solar panels sitting on top of the enzyme and the other is in the core, and the antenna absorbs the light, transfers the energy to the catalytic converter, and that repairs.

I mean, it's a fascinating thing.

It can't get any better than this.

But some dreams never go away.

Just look outside Sancar's office.

You'll find that soccer still plays a big part in his life.

Specifically Carolina Women's soccer.

Outside his office door hangs an autographed jersey from Carolina's Women's Soccer team to their number-one fan.

It's alongside Mia Hamm's jersey.

[ Cheers and applause ] In what he calls one of the most exciting days of his life, the team presented the jerseys to Sancar in a special meeting to congratulate him on winning the Nobel Prize.

And you go to a lot of games, don't you?

I try not to miss any of their home games.

And when you step inside his new office in the Genetic Medicine building on the UNC Chapel Hill campus, it's one of the rewards of being a Nobel winner, you find another dream.

Sancar and his wife Gwen, who is also a biology professor at Carolina, are passionate about helping students in Turkey.

The couple bought a house in Chapel Hill to provide temporary housing for Turkish students attending the university and to serve as a Turkish cultural center.

The couple is setting up a scholarship program for Turkish students to study at Carolina, and there's also a program helping teach science and math to 7,000 girls in Turkey.

It's no surprise Sancar is a celebrity in his home country.

There's a national stamp with his image.

He's also been presented with national awards.

They acknowledge the importance of hard work, and that is my suggestion, my advice to students.

Thank you all very much.

He's a celebrity in North Carolina, as well, but for Aziz Sancar, it's still about the dream and inspiring other dreamers.

You have to learn.

You have to compete with other great scientists in the world.

And here a Turk from the boondocks of Turkey comes and competes with the best scientists in the world and made this accomplishment, and I am to my countrymen and to colleagues.

It is our duty to contribute to humanity.

It's not just for our own good.